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Russian 'ghost ships' near Nord Stream before blast - reports

A handout photo taken from video released by Russian Defence Ministry Press Service on Friday, April 14, 2023
A handout photo taken from video released by Russian Defence Ministry Press Service on Friday, April 14, 2023 Copyright JONATHAN NACKSTRAND/AFP or licensors
Copyright JONATHAN NACKSTRAND/AFP or licensors
By Joshua Askew
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The pipeline carrying gas from Russia to Europe was blown up last September.

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Russian ships were present before last year's Nord Stream blasts, a documentary has claimed. 

Two Nord Stream pipelines carrying gas from Russia to Europe, via the Baltic Sea, were knocked offline by underwater explosions last September. 

Several competing theories have circulated about the cause, with some attributing it to Russia and others suggesting the West or Ukraine was to blame. 

What actually happened remains unknown.  

However, in the latest episode of a series called Putin's Shadow War it is alleged there were suspicious movements of Russian ships, which could perform underwater operations, near the explosion site. 

The TV documentary, produced by Nordic broadcasters, does not directly claim Moscow was responsible, but raises pointed questions about the unusual activity of its navy. 

It claimed so-called Russian "ghost ships", including a research vessel, tugboat and a third naval ship, were in the blast zone for several hours and nearly a full day, in one case.  

They reportedly had their transmitters turned off, though the broadcasters claim their movements could still be tracked using intercepted radio communications. 

A retired British naval intelligence officer, who used to work on intercepting the Russian Baltic Fleet, tracked their whereabouts using open-source information and radio communications. 

Some in the West point the finger at Russia, though Moscow denies any involvement. 

Russia has accused the UK of "directing" the Nord Stream explosions, which destroyed a key piece of the Kremlin's energy infrastructure that gave it leverage over Europe, especially gas-hungry Germany. London has dismissed this claim as false. 

Recent reports suggest pro-Ukrainian operatives were to blame, though not the Ukrainian government itself. 

"A lot of other, and conflicting, theories have also been floated," Håvard Gulldahl, an investigative reporter who worked on the document, told Euronews. 

"Some of the other theories have been rather convoluted in their methods... too secretive of their sources and draw conclusions that aren't sufficiently supported by their reporting."

View Putin's Shadow War here

"We have tried our best to be open with how we have worked, what our findings are - and what they aren't," he added.

The documentary made a detailed assessment of what Russian ships were doing in the months leading up to the incident. 

One of its vessels, the Sibiryakov, is believed to be capable of underwater surveillance and mapping as well as launching a small underwater vehicle.

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It switched its communications to a secret receiver and took an unusual route near where the pipeline would later blow up in June, according to the Royal Navy officer, who remained anonymous in the documentary. 

Another vessel, the SB-123 naval tugboat, is alleged to have arrived five days before the September explosions.  

Its radio communications suggest it stayed there the whole night, before sailing back towards Russia. 

"We have used satellite imagery and other sources to verify the positions from the radio messages," said investigative reporter Gulldahl. "We are confident to say that these vessels were in the area, and also at what time they were there."

He continued: "We don't, however, conclude whether or not they had a part in the leaks. Future reporting might give us more answers there."

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In April, the series by Denmark's DR, Norway's NRK, Sweden's SVT, and Finland's Yle broadcasters revealed that Russian vessels were mapping out offshore wind farms, gas pipelines, power, and internet cables in the North Sea for possible sabotage attacks.

Some targets included wind farms off the coast of Britain, a vital source of the country's energy. 

Both Sweden and Denmark say the blast, which occurred in their economic zones, was deliberate, though they have not determined who was responsible.

They are investigating the incident, along with Germany. 

The gas leak from the blast spewed out a huge amount of greenhouse gas emissions, estimated at 500 metric tons of climate-change-causing methane per hour.

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